Steve Bloomer: Football in a German prison camp

Sunday, December 15 – 1918
My record-breaking team wins thrilling victories

After spending three and a half years in Ruhleben Camp as an interned civilian Steve Bloomer, the famous football players, has returned to his home, 36, Portland Street, Derby.

In this series of articles, which are exclusively contributed to “The Post Sunday Special,” he tells among his many and varied experiences how the King of Sports was organised in the camp, and how the interest which football created saved many men from losing their reason on account of the hardships and the monotony of their lives.

From the middle of March, 1915, when the military authorities in Berlin conceded the privileges of our using the great open space encircled by the racing track for our sports, life in Ruhleben began to get easier.

It was about that time that we first received the British Government grant of four marks per week, and also to receive private parcels from home.

But to me the greatest concession was the throwing open of a suitable sports ground.

After getting the ground, our next problem was the provision of playing materials. Edwin Dutton, the old Newcastle players, and one of my biggest chums in Ruhleben, who I hear, by the way, is now in Newcastle again, discussed this problem with me.

“We should be all right,” he said, “if we could only tap the resources of the shop,” referring, of course, to the sports outfitting business which his father had opened in Berlin, and which was being carried on during Edwin’s internment at Ruhleben by his mother and sister.

We approached the military authorities, and received permission to purchase whatever was required from the Dutton establishment.
“But,” added the commandant, “we shall deduct a certain percentage of all purchases.”

We procured a complete outfit, consisting of jerseys, pants, boots, stockings, sufficient for fifteen teams, and balls, goal posts, and flags for the ground.

We played an exhibition opening game, having for its purpose the discovery of talent.

With the theatrical instinct of the Hun, the commandant, accompanied by his wife attended the game, and he actually consented to kick off.

A roar of cheering applauded his effort, but it really signified the pleasure of the spectators that football had actually started.

The commandant, bowing and smiling, then threaded his way among the players to his stand at the touch line, where he remained almost throughout the game, surrounded by the majority of his officers and their wives.

My crack team
The game created a great deal of interest and enthusiasm. Practically everyone who had no work to do, and was consequently free, including the Hun guards, was in attendance.

After that exhibition match our next duty was the choosing of the teams to represent the various barracks. For this purpose each barrack played a practice game. Barrack One, of which I was the captain, played the barrack at the end of the proper pitch.

The work of picking my team was no easy task, but eventually I sorted out the available material, and I might state here that the team which in the first match, with only two alterations, carried us successfully through the 1915 season, and left Barrack One at the top of the League without a single defeat being registered against us.

I was the only professional on the side, but I had got some really rattling players to back me up.

Principal among these were Mr. George Tressader, who, I learn, has now returned to his home in Cardiff, having got back from Germany with the last batch of men to be returned. He played left-back, and one would have to tramp a long way before coming up against an exponent quite so clever in that position.

Then there was Jimmy Quinn, of Liverpool, who played in the centre-half position. He was a civil engineer on duty in Germany when the war roped him into Ruhleben.

And our defence was made secure by a man named Frank Heath, who operated in the left half-back position. His native heath was London, but he was in business in Germany prior to the outbreak of war.

All of these three men are exceptionally fine amateur players. They improved even under the conditions imposed upon them at Ruhleben, and I have no hesitation in saying that if they were trained with First League players they would blossom out into fine. Class men. If I were the manager of a club I would not have the smallest doubt about signing them up.

Our great record
The rules of the league came into operation at once, and we commenced to play the competition right away.

As the games started late in March, it will be readily understood that we had no time to waste if we were to finish before the opening of the cricket season. To get over the difficulty two matches were played a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

I had got a really fine team together. We went right through all the league games without losing a match, and as that meant that we had won fourteen games – there were fourteen first league teams and fifteen second league teams – we finished up with the full twenty-six points to our credit.

Another very interesting fact, and one that pays due credit to our defence, is that we played twelve matches without a goal being scored against us.

The first goal that was registered against us was scored by Barrack Six. They were a keen, hard-playing, sporting side, and in this particular game they were all out to win. The big majority of the men in this barrack were British Jews, and jolly fine players they were.

Let me tell you how the goal was scored. The ball came out of touch about midfield and was passed rapidly along the forward line to the inside left, a small, tricky, very speedy man, who got away with it at once and made for our goal. It was, I admit, a brilliant piece of work, and he deserved to succeed when he passed our half-back and afterwards our full-back.

He was going like the wind, with the half-back and backs vainly endeavouring to hang on to his heels. Only the goalkeeper stood between him and success. Steadying himself somewhat as he approached the desired sticks, he took careful note of the various positions, then, like lightning, his foot went back and then forward, and the ball, out of reach of the goalkeeper, sailed into the net.

I am not very clear about what happened afterwards. I remember that the full Barrack Six team surged past me and, making for the little scorer, instead of shaking him by the hand, hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him right round the playing field. That the game should continue did not seem to matter. The only fact that appeared to impress them was that a goal, the first, had been registered against Barrack One, and that Barrack Six teams had done it. They went made, and the whistle for time saved them from lining up again.

Two men carried off
Then came the last match of the season with Barrack Eleven. Under ordinary circumstances they were particularly keen, but the successes achieved by Barrack Six and Seven added zest to their ordinary enthusiasm. On our part, we were determined that goal would not be registered against us that season.

Right from the moment of the first whistle the game was carried through with a bustle that left an old player like myself a little breathless. It was evident, in view of the successes achieved during the two previous matches, that Barrack Eleven did not consider us to be invincible, and they laid themselves out to beat us.

Never have I seen such energy on a football ground. Within twenty minutes from the start Edwin Dutton was taken from the field with his arm broken. Then just after half-time Steve Sains, who was nicknamed “Speedy,” was carried off the field with his ear cut.

That left us with nine men to finish the game. But we were not downhearted, and still continued to hold Barrack Eleven in check. Then I got the ball, and beating the backs, banged it into the net, scoring the only goal of the game.

When the match was finished our supporters rushed the ropes and carried me should high back to our barracks.

My hopes shattered
I can assure you that I felt very proud of my team at the end of the season. Our record was a really fine one, and I felt that I could look forward with hope to the next, 1915-16, season.

Any hopes that I entertained, however, were dashed to the ground a few days after our winning the League championship.

On that particular morning the commandant, accompanied by his officers, paraded us in front of our barracks.

“If there are any men of German sympathies among you,” he bawled, “let them stand out to one side.”
A few technical Britishers, for the most part who had been born and bred in Germany, and who hardly knew a word of English stood out. They were taken to a small clearing by one of the soldiers, whilst the Baron and his officers went round to the other barracks and sorted out the pro-Germans from these places.

When they were all collected into one bunch the commandant came back to Barrack One.
“You will all collect your baggage,” he shouted, “and clear out of here once.”
And without more ado we were hustled inside to gather our possessions together, and then scattered to the four winds of the camp, whilst the pro-Germans were moved into our barracks.

Of course, the team on which I was building such great hopes for the next season was broken up altogether and distributed all over the camp, and to me next season was just as much a problem as it been prior to the opening of the 1915 season.

Next week, besides continuing my sporting experiences, I shall tell some interesting facts relative to those pro-Germans who were instrumental in breaking up my crack team.
(Daily Record, 15-12-1918)

The image below was found at the website of the National Army Museum.

ruhleben 3

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